Saturday, September 07, 2013

Forget Red Lines Yada Yada Yada! Find The WMD Stockpile If You Want To Sell A Syrias Invasion!

Syriasly, can we talk? "Red lines," "boots on the ground," and "shots across the bow" are catchphrases that have been tossed against the wall to see what sticks in recent 24-hour cable news segments. What is needed is the discovery that the Syrian Madman, Bashar al-Assad, has "Weapons of Mass Destruction" (the ultimate catchphrase) hidden somewhere in Syria. Then, and only then, will the Neocons' feverish night-dreams come true. Talk about the Second Coming, The Rumster and The Dickster must have mental erections they haven't had since 2001. If this is a (fair & balanced) prescription of a virtual anaphrodisiac, so be it.

[x CHE/Lingua Franca Blog]
Blurred Red Lines
By Ben Yagoda

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The Quote of the Day in The New York Times on Wednesday came from President Obama, who said in Stockholm, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

Oy, red lines again.

The metaphor refers, of course, to what, specifically, Syria would have to do in order to ensure that the United States would intervene. Back in August 2012, Obama had said: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

A whole bunch of chemical weapons were indeed utilized, so now what? The president wanted, or felt he had, to carry out his threat, he got pushback in Congress and elsewhere, so now it’s the world’s red line. The predicament is one more example that not only lies but also metaphors can weave tangled webs.

Jon Stewart is back on television after his long leave, so let’s give him the last word on this particular point: “Oh right! We have to bomb Syria because we’re in seventh grade! And the red line... the red line that they crossed is actually a [penis]-measuring ribbon.”

Meanwhile, another metaphor is creating problems. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense John Kerry at first balked at the idea of specifically banning U.S. troops from entering Syria; they might be needed, he said, to prevent rebel extremists from getting their hands on chemical weapons if the country “imploded.” That did not sit well with some senators, The Wall Street Journal reported:

“I didn’t find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground,” said Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), who has been leaning towards backing President Barack Obama’s plan to strike Syria.

“We all feel the actions by the Assad regime are reprehensible, [but] I don’t think there are any of us here that are willing to support the possibility of having combat boots on the ground.”

“All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility,” Mr. Kerry told the senator....

To be clear, Mr. Kerry said: “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”

A State Department statement issued later in the day returned to the theme: “As Secretary Kerry made clear repeatedly during the hearing and over the last several months, the administration is not considering, and has no plans to consider, boots on the ground in Syria. Period.”

Kerry had to go through the same routine in front of a House Committee on Wednesday, one representative commenting that a version of a Senate resolution sounded “like it leaves open the possibility of boots on the ground for something other than combat operations—like special operations. Is this intentional? Will you confirm that under no circumstance will we place boots on the ground in Syria?”

Kerry responded, no doubt wearily, “We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground.”

Boots on the ground is a vivid, effective, and evocative metaphor, no doubt about it. Ubiquitous of late, it’s of fairly recent vintage, with the oldest use I have been able to find coming from a 1979 book called Terrorism: U.S. Perspectives: “Our aim is to gain operational control of the Arizona border, and to do that by putting more boots on the ground and that is directing the deployment of 534 more Border Patrol agents to the Arizona sectors.” (T; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first cite is from 1980. Booyah, OED!) [Update: The 1979 quote I thought I found was actually from 2004, and was misdated by Google Books. Serves me right for gloating.]

My problem with BOTG, I suppose, stems from the fact that nowadays it’s almost always used in a negative sense: that is, accompanying explanations or admonitions that no U.S. boot will come in contact with any molecule of the bad guys’ ground. Instead, we will mete out our punishment through “surgical” (watch that metaphor) air strikes, preferably carried out by unmanned drones. But deciding to go to war should require risking lives, not just “treasure”; it’s that weighty and profound. Otherwise the enterprise is too much like a video game.

The president introduced a final problematic metaphor on August 28, when he said on PBS, referring to Syria, that if “we send a shot across the bow saying, ‘stop doing this,’ that can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term.”

The problematic part is that a “shot across the bow” goes across rather than into the bow; it is a warning shot. The first use I could find was in an account of a War of 1812 battle: “The action was invited on the part of the [U.S.S.] Constitution, by firing a signal shot across the bow of the Cyane.” About 150 years later, it had turned into a metaphor. In 1969 Congressional hearings, reference was made to the possibility of “one or two missiles launched against our homeland as a sort of shot across the bow.”

It sounds forceful, with that word “shot” and all, but it really wasn’t what Obama meant. And a couple of days afterward, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld jumped all over it in a booyah moment: “Why would you go in and fire a shot across the bow? All it does is make a splash.”

Since then, we haven’t heard any more about shots across the bow, from the White House or anywhere else.

As we debate what do to in Syria—the most serious and least cynical Congressional debate I’ve observed in some time, by the way—is it too much to ask our legislators to forgo metaphor and say what they mean? Yeah, probably. But at the least, they could heed the words of Sergeant [Phil] Esterhaus from "Hill Street Blues" and be careful out there. Ω

[Ben Yagoda (B.A. Yale, M.A. University of Pennsylvania) is the author of Memoir: A History (2009), About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), and Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) and the coeditor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (1997). He has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to more than fifty national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. Yagoda has been a Lingua Franca blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education since August 2011.) He is a professor of journalism and literary non-fiction in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.]

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